Short story by Michael Botur
The curtains are drawn. There can’t be people living here. The lawn is unmowed. The letterbox is leaking junk mail. Still, the African kid following you on his bike – no helmet, no shoes – says it’s the right place. Bike-Boy is chirpy and has red cheeks. Bike-Boy loves to help. Trudging through the long grass of Mt Roskill to teach ESOL to refugees: it’s a cushy sentence to receive for pushing over the bookcase in your supervisor’s office in Campus House. Cushy because you were going to be charged for assaulting your supervisor at uni if you didn’t beg for diversion. Your parents wrote really articulate letters to the judge and Mum cried in court and you pleaded it down so teaching ESOL is your punishment but honestly: you feel you should retain the right to kill annoying people. And you could, if you wanted to.
That whole court charade, all that fake contrition? Lesson learned? Pfft.
You knock on the door of a yellow 50s bungalow, one of those old state houses. There’s a delay for ages. Finally an African woman opens. Ethiopian, she looks. Ethiopian is what you’ve been told to expect. She has these big white pretty eyes bulging out of her cheekbones, that’s the first thing that strikes you. The black hair, the black lashes, the stark eyes.
‘Heyyy, have I got the right, is this… ?’ You introduce yourself and pull out the sheet of paper Ruth from Probation gave you, with the lads’ names. ‘I’m here cause the court ordered me to teach ESOL to your kids or something?’
‘My nephew. Their mother, their father, he is being dead.’
‘Damn… er, anyway, I’m here to see …. How do you pronounce this? Neb-Yacht?’
‘Nebeyat,’ she says quickly, as if the name’s only one syllable, and shifts her body so she rests on the other side of the door frame. ‘He is inside. Come, Keee-vin. I am Shewaynesh. They are aunty.’
Inside the air is brown, dark. Every window has an icon of Ethiopian Jesus held over it with thumb tacks. This east African Jesus is bearded, with white robes, walking through lush tropical valleys.
The house gets darker and darker until you find yourself in a simple square lounge, five metres by five, with an ancient, cold fireplace and a crowd of dining chairs and a two seater couch occupied by one boy, or man. Someone very large yet young-looking. There’s another, smaller male on an armchair in the corner. The two guys are watching – seriously? – MTV Africa, playing on a fairly tiny 32 inch TV, streaming from a small computer. The screen shows some kind of Senegal pop music with slutty dancers and playboys in racecars weaving through the crowded markets of Dakar or Lagos or wherever, throwing fistfuls of bullets at everyone like rice.
The larger boy is wearing black sunglasses, camouflage pants and no shirt. He looks like some sort of a homebound king, or dictator. He’s patting a knife on his thigh.
‘Sup, guys, I’m Kevin. Guys? GUYS.’
The younger refugee leans around his cousin. ‘What you like, Mr Kevin?’
‘Listen, I got some books here in my bag, see? B-A-G. Bag. This book’s pretty choice. WordFind. You guys do many of those back home, or…?’
The smaller boy offers you a packet of wafers. ‘You like snack?’
You chew a wafer suspiciously. It dries your mouth out so you crack open a can of Red Bull. The boy’s eyes widen as you drink it.
‘What’s your name anyway, dude?’
‘Red Bull,’ he says.
‘Oh, cool,’ you begin, and search your backpack for a second book of word puzzles before you click. ‘Hang on – no, YOUR name. YOU. Who are YOU, dude?’
‘My name, it Berhanu Ammanuel Fisha Belachew.’
‘And your bro?’
The younger boy is smacking the butt of the can, patting the last sweet droplets into his mouth.
‘Your brother, dude. I can’t start the lesson til I’m 100 percent sure of his name. They gave me this little attendance register I’m supposed to fill out. Yo! Older Bro! Are. You. Neb-yot?’
‘He not my brother,’ young Berhanu says quickly, lowering his can and glaring at the couch-king.
‘Right. Hey listen, we need to crack on with this learning-English shit else my arse is headed to jail.’ You flick a lightswitch on.
Instantly the older boy, Nebeyat, is on his feet. He leans his forehead into yours. This guy is huuuge. Even though he’s slim, his gravity bends the air. Big shoulders. Good knuckles. A fighter’s body.
‘I no want light on this Oromo, this man,’ he booms, pointing at his cousin. Then he thumbs his chest and says, ‘THIS man, me? This man Amhara.’
‘That’s your name, or… I don’t understand, sorry… ?’
Before the older one flips the light off and returns to his dark couch you’re left with a final impression that actually, maybe he doesn’t look much like the other dude at all. He points to the youngster. ‘Russ-i-a is him,’ he says, ‘And America is I am. Oromo he; Amhara me. Amhara like Mengistu!’ He thrusts a brief fist in the air. Beneath his sunglasses, his cheeks bend in a smile.
‘Are you sure you wanna call him Russia, though? Aren’t Russia and America almost at war?’
‘WAR, IS!’ claps the couch king, then he points a finger right in front of his cousin’s eyeball. He’s chewing something which stinks and makes his lips brown. ‘Is war, yes!’
You lay photocopied wordfinds in front of both males. Only the smaller boy attempts to complete the work. He’s grateful, engaged, willing to learn.
The older one, Nebeyat, just stares at his music videos with his sunglasses on, muttering dark threats. He’s not like his little cousin. He’s not like anyone.
You can’t stab people directly in their faces, but you think about it a lot. You don’t start the day angry, it’s just that people irritate you and the only tools you have are a crafty brain and arms like little sticks. Uber drivers, students in your ANTH309 tutorials, old neighbours peering over the fence as you use your samurai sword on a dummy swinging from a tree in your back yard. Irritating homeless people at the bus stop. Neighbours having noisy parties you aren’t invited to. People on Reddit who disagree with you. It’s hard to contain the rage.
You reluctantly go to this student social club party on New North Road hosted by this Somali chick Awane from uni – no, Ethiopian? Somali? You’ve never been sure where she’s from. The party is held in a special room within the city council building and it’s full of pretentious alphas from the student social committee and the mayor’s there in the corner, schmoozing, and it’s so hard to keep clean façade that finally you have to leave before you burst. You find a weak boy at the party. Invite him to come have a private smoke. You lead him down the steps and away from the music. You step into a dark cleft between buildings. From there, it’s a sprint through a couple of alleyways, then a shortcut through the park before you boost the kitchen window of a house with a pile of iPads and nobody home. When he’s lifting his body up the fence, you pull him down, wrap your arms like pythons in a knot around his shoulders and collarbone and skull, apply pressure to the chokehold over the course of a minute, put him safely to sleep. You’ve done it twice before. Afterwards there was nothing in the paper about people dying. Usually they wake up unharmed. Usually.
You return to the party, return to the people in the button-up shirts, the women in golden hijabs and dashikis. You endure the difficult conversation. Know that you if you wanted to badly enough you could execute everyone.
Shewaynesh explains more and more as you enter the house each Saturday afternoon for another slow lesson in a hot, sticky curtained room with Ethiopian Jesus watching over. ‘Welcome us Kee-vin,’ she always says, making your name sound exotic and spicy. She shucks corn cobs over the sink. It’s nice to see more and more photos on the fridge each time. Looks like she’s been going to church with little Berhanu.
The third time you visit, there’s a picture on the fridge of little Berhanu with large eyes in a uniform that’s far too big for him, standing in a tent in some smoky place populated with tents. Hard to believe that little enthusiastic teen in the lounge with the bright eyes, the dude sharpening his pencil in excitement over your visit, used to be a vicious child soldier. There’s a dude dressed in camouflage behind him holding a Kalashnikov behind his head and stretching – a dude who looks a lot like Nebeyat. You open the curtains to let a little light onto the photo and hopefully illuminate the boys in the lounge, get their eyes off MTV. Shewaynesh comes up beside you, tapping the old photo and says, ‘Rebel, Berhanu he rebel, he have to be, Mengistu kill his family. His mother, she is my sister and he KEEL her with he sniper.’ With that, she yanks the curtains shut so no bullets can find the boy. Nebeyat watches us in the reflection on the TV screen.
Fourth Saturday, you lie on your belly on the floor with Berhanu and explain why C is sometimes a ‘suh’ sound and sometimes a ‘kuh’ sound, writing circus and circle and quick in big plain sans serif letters for Berhanu while he soaks it all up, using his Hello Kitty eraser with pride.
Nebeyat has spent the entire lesson with the shades over his eyes aiming his fingers like a gun at the TV screen and chewing something. When you press him to tell you what the diphthongs Ch and Th and Sh sound like, he stares at you vengefully, still tapping the knife he cradles like a kitten. Still shirtless; still wearing camo pants and shades.
‘Guys, how would you feel about doing a mock job interview with each other, to practice your English so you can get jobs?’
‘I have job!’ Berhanu pipes up, squeaky and enthusiastic. ‘When I not am study, I am make for Domino’s pizza!’ He actually rises a little bit off his chair as he announces his job proudly, showing his gums as he grins, stretching his arms as he tells his excited story. Nebeyat balances this by staring at you cold and hard. He thinks Berhanu’s enthusiasm is pathetic.
‘How bout you, Nebeyat? Did they give you a job at Dominos too?’
Berhanu makes a loop-the-loop motion with his finger on his temple. ‘They say Nebeyat, he no work. He too anger.’
Nebeyat snorts. On the screen is another strange African gangsta music video. Gleeful soldiers with bandoliers of bullets, men on chairs half-buried in jewels. Nollywood music on autotune. Little kids shooting uzis at each other.
‘This is me am work,’ Nebeyat says, lifting his huge sockless size 13 foot, toeing the TV screen, ‘Soldier: this Nebeyat work. Him pizza, him Domino’s? Is work for woman.’
Still seated, still patting his knife, he speaks more words than you’ve heard him say so far put together. ‘Here is person,’ he says, indicating Person A with his left hand. ‘Over here is money.’ Money is his right hand. Then he puts his hands between the money and the person. ‘But here is applicashi-on, here is passa-port, here is visa, here is fucking, how say, fucking tunnel. Is TUNNEL. And not fit. Big man NOT down, not crawl for tunnel. Big man should, should, should tunnel come to he.’ He points his sunglasses at you and stares hard. In four weeks, you have never once seen his eyes. Nor have the curtains been opened.
‘Hoop is what you wanna say, dude, jumping through HOOPS, not tunnels – but I feel ya, I feel ya.’ You stick out your hand to slap Nebeyat’s casually. He examines your hand, lifts it up to see if there’s something underneath it.
On screen, some kind of Big Man dictator on the back of a pickup truck is driving down a dusty mainstreet under palm trees. The Big Man dictator wears a beret and khaki uniform.
‘Fssht,’ Nebeyat tells you, ‘They are dream to soldier. Nebeyat: HE soldier.’
‘What, you got combat experience, dude? Oh! I almost forgot.’ You rummage clumsily in your backpack for your print-outs. ‘I was reading about your country on Wikipedia and I was like Holy Shit. About that motherfucker Mengistu. The Butcher of Addis, eh?’
Berhanu gasps and looks away, muttering a prayer.
‘Am I saying it right? Men-gis-tu?’
Berhanu makes the sign of the cross on his chest. Nebeyat grins from the couch, scratches a shirtless armpit. He even lowers his shades a fraction.
‘So you had like the nationalist guy Haile Selassie, the rasta guy and that was all good, then this fella Mengistu Hailemariam comes along? And he’s like a Communist and real repressive and shit? And he got revenge on the lighter-skinned guys, eh, the Oromos? And they called him the Butcher of Addis Ababa? Sounds epic – no offence. What side were you guys on?’
Berhanu covers his little mouth and shakes his face, Mumbling ‘Not-not-not.’ Nebeyat leans back cockily, laces his fingers behind his arrogant ears.
‘Sorry, awkward. Um, anyway, guys, we just got another three minutes before my time is up so –
‘Your time is up say who?’ Even with the black glasses covering his expression, Nebeyat looks pissed. Nebeyat growls at the other kid, leans over the far end of the couch and slaps him.
Berhanu rubs his cheek. ‘He want to know who tell you orders.’
‘It’s, God, it’s… this is hard for me to say: It’s Corrections, okay? Like probation? Police, judge, prison – they tell me to come here.’
Nebeyat snorts and smirks and claps his hands and knees. His large white teeth and pink gums are exposed. ‘You are creemenal, is excellent, is good,’ he says at last. ‘Tell Nebeyat your creem. I have cut off man ear and feed him ear, he eat him ear,’ he says. ‘TELL NEBEYAT.’
Berhanu is playing nervously with the edge of a curtain, shaking and gibbering.
‘Just assault, man. Common assault… with a blunt instrument. But I got diversion.’
‘Instrument? You keel him with guitar?’
‘A bookcase. I pushed it on him.’
A white smile spills on his face and leaks from chin to ears.
‘Book, heh heh. Keel, heh heh.’ He claps his hands decisively, gets up and starts pacing.
‘Meester Job, Meester Domino’s pizza man think he big man: I want KEEL him. I want CHOP de face. This why Nebeyat no servant. Nebeyat, he is… .’
Nebeyat is still searching for the right word when the lesson ends. Berhanu and his auntie Shewaynesh follow you to the door; The Couch King gets up and joins them for once, slinking through the shadows. He reaches the door step, looks at you evilly. ‘Nebeyat is God. Is right word?’
‘Um… only if you’ve got the power of, like, life or death and smiting somone?’
Nebeyat smiles at that. He smiles like he smiles in the photograph which is now the background of the Playstation. A photograph of Mengistu with his hand on Nebeyat’s neck and Nebeyat folding into the man.
Job interviews make you want to strangle, choke, kill, burn. They make you want to throw acid in a man’s face, like you saw in that documentary for ANTH 404.5. You feel like melting off your parents’ faces, too, as they fill your wine glass with trembling, liver-spotted hands and tell you what job interviews their Probus Club connections arranged for you this week.
You do your best to interview well, but the nicely-presented Perfect People seem to sense the frustration in you. They can call it evil if they want, but you think of it like this: you won’t have to bring the pain so long as these people behave. And behave they must.
You get calls every day to tell you you’ve made it to the shortlist for some job that would’ve been lucky to have you, but unfooooooorunately another candidate was just that liiiiiiiiittle teency bit more qualified, at least according to Candy from Manpower. Actually, Candy, that’s bullshit. She personally phones you and gives you a cruel spark of hope before taking a full 70 seconds to draw the let-down out into a gentle decrescendo.
By the tenth rejection, you’re mad enough to put hits on these people that doubt you. ‘Y’know what, lady?’ you rasp over the phone at Jasmine from Jobsource.com, ‘I got a friend who could make you eat your own ear if you EVER, EVER fuck me again.’
It’s days like this you need a little perspective. You need to hear about the place where if you want to take a man’s life, you can go ahead and do it.
You need a taste of the real world, the Darwinian world, the world of justice, so you visit Nebeyat out of the blue, late on a Thursday. You bring him a gift: Grand Theft Auto Hit & Run. Nebeyat nods, looking pleased, and points down towards the Playstation, ordering you to get the game going. Berhanu stands in the corner looking uncomfortable as his fellow refugee runs around Vice City bashing in heads with his baseball bat. Berhanu seems to have wanted you as a brother, or mentor at least, but that’s the way you feel about Nebeyat. You wouldn’t have even had to take the risks you’ve taken in your life if you had a brother as bold as Nebeyat.
He Hit & Runs a man’s skull into a lamppost so hard it bends the metal and your hand reaches out to Nebeyat and he slaps your palm in solidarity. The two of you hang out late into the evening, drinking Red Bull, then you return lunchtime Friday and play Postal and Fortnite and Jarhead for hours, and Sniper Elite and Dead By Daylight and Bulletstorm and Brainfog. Saturday afternoon, while Berhanu quietly lies on the floor, scrawling childish letters in the workbook you’re supposed to be helping him with, you and your new best bro are laughing at Inglourious Basterds and throwing popcorn at the TV. You watch Natural Born Killers next then Sin City then Reservoir Dogs after. Nebeyat loves the bit where they cut off the guy’s ear and he drags the couch closer to the screen and points at Berhanu and makes a snipping motion with his fingers and the two of you cackle together.
As the credits roll, you notice Berhanu behind the couch, as if he’s dressed in a black suit, crouching in darkness, outlined in white TV glow. You’re chewing this peppery khat stuff Nebeyat has given you. It’s almost exactly like chewing a bouncy ball made of rubber. It makes you impatient and you find yourself snapping at Berhanu to bring you a drink and a smoke.
‘Wisha, befit’ineti!’ you snap at the boy and you both laugh. Wisha means dog.
‘MM! MM! Almost forgot! Look what I picked up from Camo & Ammo!’ You unzip your bag as fast as you can and pull out the army uniform. Sure it’s from the 70s but it’s dark green and it’s got patches sewn on the chest and brass buttons and god damn it’s crisp and pleated.
Nebeyat’s teeth and gums take over his face. He hoists the uniform up to the light, lays it down on the couch, waltzes around the room with it then promises he’ll be back. He trots away to his bedroom and returns a hundred seconds later, clad in green, tall and noble. He is wearing black boots. His chest is puffed up like a pillow. His black plastic eyes point proudly at the ceiling. Ready for inspection.
‘You look ready for war, bro.’
Nebeyat agrees, and presses a fresh chunk of khat into your lips then tilts his head towards the front door.
You strut down to Domino’s, Nebeyat’s boots thudding on the pavement. The sky is overcast, far too dark for Nebeyat’s shades, but he won’t take them off. He struts past the laundromat, past the Western Union and the dole office and the Hindi spice shop and Lamb Traders and marches into the Domino’s pizza shop.
The manager on duty looks Ethiopian. There’s something expectant and fearful about his body language, the way he tucks the other couple of pizza guys back into the kitchen, arms himself with a rolling pin. The white tiles stretch ahead of you. Your penis tingles. Everything goes silent.
‘We begin by you hold heem, Keevin,’ Nebeyat finally decides, and you reach across the counter and try opening the little locked gate to the kitchen. The manager bops your hand with his rolling pin and you gasp and suck your knuckles and Nebeyat uses this as an excuse to attack, vaulting the counter and yanking the rolling pin out of the manager’s hands. The third time the rolling pin comes down on the manager’s head it breaks and the man shrinks onto the tiles and hugs his legs. Nebeyat leverages himself between the wall and the till, raising his body off the ground to allow him to stomp the manager’s head more effectively. When he’s done flattening the guy’s skull, Nebeyat begins casually looking at the pizza menu, pushing another nugget of khat into his mouth.
You grab Nebeyat’s sleeve and yank him away.
That uppity piece of ass Awane, the one who’s always putting on socials and protests, the one with her face on all those student council election signs? The one who loves following rules with the perfectly braided hair and the gentle voice? Turns out she’s Ethiopian. You walk into the student break room as she’s making a coffee and she gasps as she spots the t-shirt you’re wearing. It’s got Mengistu printed on it, waving to a crowd of people You found the shirts on eBay so you bought you and your new best friend matching Mengistu gear. Berhanu and Shewaynesh were surprised, scared of the shirts, even, and Awane’s having the same reaction as those two cowards. You try shut her up, explain that you’ve been volunteering on weekends to teach English to the refugee community from her awesome country, so she should be happy.
She waggles a finger. ‘Not all aspects of my homeland are thees awesome,’ she says, sternly. ‘Thees Mengistu, the Red Terror? His name is being curse to my people. A sacrelige word. A phrase we say only when spitting.’
‘Who are your people, then? Cause my mate reckons Mengistu’s all good.’
You realise Awane’s friends are staring at you. Mengistu’s name has made them prick up their ears.
It looks like her mouth is full of wasps. ‘Oromo are my people. You meet any Ethiopian person, chances are they’re Oromo. Oromo suffer. Oromo in exile.’
‘Not my mate Nebeyat that I’m tutoring. You should meet him. He’s Amhara. He reckons they’re the best.’
Some of the United Nations council cats have their mouths hanging open and they’re tilting their heads forward, hanging on her words. ‘This is Nebeyat Fisha, you’re talking about? That’s the guy, hm? You have no idea who you’re dealing with.’
She scrunches the shoulder of your shirt and hauls you into the corridor. ‘We’d heard he sneaked out of the country,’ she whispers, glancing over her shoulder. ‘We have a list of people, people we’re concerned about. They’ve, they’ve… infiltrated. Contaminated the quota of refugees. People wanted for war crimes.’
‘What do you mean list of people? What, like you’re Nazi-hunters or something? You mean this guy’s like some kind of bigshot gangster?’
Awane grabs both your shoulders and aims her forehead at you. ‘Just a kid, same age as me. But a bad one.’
‘We insist he be deported,’ interjects one of Awane’s friends, ‘We shall contact the police this very night!’
‘Nebeyat Fisha, he be-a the HENCHman, the devil,’ adds another.
Big man NOT stoop, not crawl for tunnel.
‘I’ve lived here just over half my life, Kevin, and I tell you thees: there be nothing “good” about the government putting Oromo and Amhara together in the same house. Nothing good about giving amnesty to murderers just so they can say they’ve fulfilled their refugee quota. Recipe for disaster if you ask me. If you had seen the things Mengistu’s goons did to my people, to the Anuak, the Ogadeni, to the Omo. But most of all to the Oro– .’ She bears her teeth, shakes your hand off hers. ‘To me.’
The afternoon drags. Embarassment and shame has turned, during your last lecture, into glee. You’ve got a free ticket to kill somebody. A critic of Nebeyat is a fair target. You can’t wait to tell him you’ve decided to kill Awane.
You vault the turnstile to get your train, drum your fingers, leap out the door as soon as the train stops and scuttle to Nebeyat’s house as quickly as you can.
Shewaynesh opens the door, steps behind it. She’s wearing the door as armour.
You’ve picked up a weapon on the way – a piece of wood, with nails sticking out of it – and you pat it against you leg as you search the house for your soldier soulmate.
‘Where’s my boy?’
‘Nebeyat, he Immigration they come, in white car.’
You walk hard at Shewaynesh until she can’t back up any further.
‘SERIOUSLY. I want to see my friend.’
‘HE NO IS HERE! HE DEPORTING! HE PRISON!’
The house gets increasingly dark as you move through until you find Berhanu in the corner of the lounge, holding his pencil case and Phonics book.
The black glasses have been left for you on a $10 plastic child’s dining table with Dora the Explorer on it. You lift the glasses, push them on your eyes. You can feel the greasy warmth of Nebeyat’s skin on them.
‘I am so happy this danger man he gone,’ Berhanu says nervously, his pencil case and workbook clutched in his fingers. He’s not smiling or coming near you.
You shut the door firmly and slide on the shades. The world is dark. ‘You sure he’s gone?’